Paul Nitze: Colorado’s Democrats still forgetting the labor unions
September 10, 2009
As expected, Sen. Michael Bennet took his lumps on a pre-Labor Day listening tour of Colorado’s red-meat eastern plains. Alternately labeled a Marxist and a Socialist, Bennet was told to stop wrecking the vision of our freedom-loving founders with a government-run health care system. Bennet, of course, is not so much a Socialist as the King George of Colorado politics, having never faced the voters in any election.
Glenn Beck, and his cadre of conservative rabble-rousers, seemed to hold sway over many of Bennet’s questioners. Perhaps a few had just finished “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense,” a tract with a book jacket designed to look like the second coming of Tom Paine. No one loves to assume the mantle of the founders more than the hard right.
Setting health care aside for one refreshing moment, what you won’t hear a lot about from Beck and his ilk are the economic conditions that allowed men like Adams, Hamilton and Franklin to thrive in the first place. Without slaves or land, all of those men achieved a measure of wealth, education and stature that allowed them to hold their own against the Virginia planters. They achieved it as entrepreneurs, professionals and wage laborers.
So, a few days removed from Labor Day, it’s not amiss to give some consideration to the state of play in the American labor movement. It’s a movement that has suffered steady, accumulating losses over the last 40 years, and which has been largely ignored by Democrats in Congress and the White House since the election. Reductions in union membership have weakened unions’ political clout, and Democrats are now ignoring labor to a degree that’s unprecedented for the party of FDR.
Colorado is a political incubator for this phenomenon. If nothing else, Andrew Romanoff’s primary challenge to Bennet will force the senator to take a position on the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check. My bet is that Bennet comes out against card check in a bid to keep the business community on board. If he’s lucky, he’ll get the chance to vote for a compromise bill and split the baby, but if not Romanoff will corner him on the issue.
But if you think labor’s disappointed with Sen. Bennet, you should hear what they have to say about the governor. This might be the first election in which we put a Democrat in the state house over the vocal opposition of Colorado unions.
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Labor unions in the state absolutely detest the governor. It is hard for those outside the labor community to fathom how irreversibly he has torched his bridges to Colorado unions. Those are the unions that gave him $134,000 last cycle, but also stood on street corners, picked up phones, and knocked on doors for him. Labor may exert a shadow of the influence it did a half-century ago, but union volunteers are still the elbow grease of state Democratic campaigns.
“He’s just disgusting us right now. I don’t know who he thinks is going to work for him in 2010ÃÆ’ÃÂ¯ÃaÃÂ¿ÃaÃÂ1/2” So said Sam Pantelo, vice president of Steelworkers Local 2102, in Pueblo this summer. The occasion? A ceremony to honor the striking miners who were shot during the Ludlow Massacre. Ritter was barred from speaking at the event and was booed when he was recognized at the podium.
Most perplexing of all of this is the needlessly antagonizing way Ritter’s done it. Over the last two years, Ritter has vetoed four major pro-labor bills. This spring, he vetoed H.B. 1170, which would have provided unemployment benefits to King Soopers employees who were locked out during a long-running labor dispute between their employer and the local Food and Commercial Workers Union. A week or two later, he vetoed S.B. 180, which would have guaranteed collective bargaining rights to firefighters across the state.
On the merits, neither bill was a slam dunk. Yet Ritter stuck it in the eye of labor backers by refusing to take a position on the bills, allowing Democrats in the state Legislature to put their own hides at risk by voting for them, and then vetoing them with no show of conviction as to why.
Will this strategy pick up more independents than it loses core Dems? Jury is out: next fall’s races in our state will provide an early answer. But it’s almost certainly a blow to our democracy. Strong unions, for all their flaws, provided a critical counterweight to business groups during the second half of the last century. A well-paid, card-carrying middle class helped check interest groups.
To put it another way, our economic competitiveness suffered when we paid auto assembly workers fully loaded wages of $90/hour. Those wages and benefits were comically unsustainable. But that same $90/hour worker couldn’t be cowed the way today’s underpaid, powerless Wal-Mart associate can be.
As hard as it is to pick just one reason to be dispirited about the health care debate, it’s the mismatch between public discussion and impact that’s got me down. The interest groups have this one locked up tight. You can spew talking points, call your congressman a Marxist, or fire back on the other side and yell for single-payer, and you won’t move the needle one tick.
No one factor can explain the frustration of watching D.C.’s great procrastinators in non-action, but the feeling that the average worker’s a bit less enfranchised than he once was is unavoidable. Maybe Colorado’s leading Democrats should keep that in mind the next time they hammer another nail in labor’s coffin.
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